Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder


Part 2


    It was the loss of this political campaign that left Heinlein "flat broke" with "a heavily-mortgaged house" and ready to try anything -- even a short-story contest -- to make some money. (See Expanded Universe, p.4.) After a year of daily writing, he paid off the mortgage in the spring of 1940, "eight years ahead of time" (ibid., p.34). The implication seems to be that the mortgage was of ten years' duration and was taken out in the spring of 1938, possibly to finance Heinlein's election campaign or to purchase the house -- or for both reasons at once. (One of the issues in the "autobiographical" short story involved the protagonist's eligibility to run because of residency requirements after returning from service in the armed forces; the character cites the law on this point, suggesting that Heinlein may have had to invoke it in registering his candidacy.12

    If Heinlein had won a seat in the California Assembly, he might have become a career politician and never turned to writing. Then there would have been no Future History series, no breakout SF stories in slick magazines like the Saturday Evening Post, no series of juveniles for Scribner's, no Stranger in a Strange Land. The man whose writing many credit with having redefined science fiction would have been preoccupied with legislative roll-calls and constituents' complaints and running for higher office.

    Why did he run? What issues drove him to seek a seat in the legislature? And what made him lose?

    We can get a hint of Heinlein's early political stance from memorial remarks of L. Sprague de Camp: "Robert had tried several occupations [...] Another was as an active political worker in Califomia, for the Democratic Party. His political orientation then was quite different from the emphatic conservatism that he later embraced." (Requiem, p.226.)

    We can verify Tony Boucher's hint and the one given by the mention of Upton Sinclair at the beginning of the Denvention speech. On p. 19 of Take Back Your Government! Heinlein states that early in his political career, he found himself "publishing, in my spare time, a political newspaper of two million circulation."

    This describes the weekly paper known as Upton Sinclair's EPIC News, which achieved that circulation in the fall of 1934, when Sinclair ran for governor.13

    And in the issue of May 6, 1935, on p. 8, one finds Heinlein's name listed among a select group of fifty assembly district secretaries who helped Sinclair prepare for the EPIC convention held later that month; Sinclair named Heinlein along with six others to serve on a committee to write a constitution for EPIC that would be presented for delegates' approval at the convention. EPIC was undergoing changes after Sinclair's defeat the previous year; it was being transformed from Sinclair's campaign organization into a democratically-run nationwide political movement. Even the name changed, though not the acronym; EPIC now stood for "End Poverty in Civilization." The name of the paper also changed, to Upton Sinclair's National EPIC News.

    Friends of Heinlein were also associated with EPIC News. Cleve Cartmill and Roby Wentz, who were later members of Heinlein's informal Maņana Literary Society, appear on the masthead as staff. Wentz's wife Elma shared a byline with a Heinlein pseudonym in his only known fictional collaboration, "Beyond Doubt"; originally a Heinlein story, it was revised by Mrs. Wentz and sold after Heinlein had failed to place the original version.14 It seems likely that news writers like Cartmill and Wentz -- along with Anthony Boucher, who worked for another weekly paper in the Los Angeles area and who published his first mystery in 1937 -- made Heinlein's acquaintance through politics before his writing career started and may have influenced him to try his hand at fiction. Upton Sinclair, a prolific author, who often wrote a sort of popular form of science fiction -- a play about the year 2000, for instance, or a story of a racing-car driver who shifts in time back to the Roman Empire as a chariot racer, not to mention a nonfiction book titled Mental Radio, discussing what we now call telepathy -- may also have had an influence. Sinclair lived in Pasadena, not far from Heinlein's house in Hollywood.

    In 1937, the November 1st issue of the EPIC News ran an article on page 2 naming office-holders unacceptable to EPIC: ". . . the attitude of the following 20 is unsatisfactory. They are named somewhat in the order of their 'unprogressiveness.' " Charles Lyon was third on the list, ahead of Governor Merriam, who had defeated Sinclair in 1934.15 And the issue of November 29th carried an editorial naming Charles Lyon and four others as "the worst" members of the California Assembly and saying: "Several 'new men' have intimated that they intend to be candidates for the Assembly, but not many have yet made 'their announcements.' It is important that good new people get into the arena soon. People who 'know their economics' and know enough to know that a Production for Use policy must be inaugurated in California before we can even begin to get out of the bog, we are now in. [...] Assemblymen [...] Charles W. Lyons (sic) of Los Angeles [...] should be excused from service -- just to name a few of the worst ones."

    Was the thirty-year-old Heinlein one of the "new men" who was being urged to make an announcement? Perhaps -- for in 1938, Heinlein's decision to run for the Assembly is reflected in the April 4th issue of the EPIC News, where his name appears in a "Straw Ballot" as a desirable EPIC candidate for the 59th District seat. The EPIC News had again considered the incumbent assemblymen's voting records, and in the issue of February 28th, 1938, reported that from the EPIC point of view, Charles Lyon, in a hundred key votes, held a "good" record in only sixteen and a "bad" one in sixty-four, while being absent for twenty. Clearly it would be an EPIC triumph to oust Lyon.

    So Robert Heinlein was not "a moderate Democrat," as Pournelle tells us; he was actively involved over a period of several years with the movement of a candidate that President Roosevelt refused to endorse, even though Sinclair had changed his registration from Socialist to Democrat in 1933 and then won the nomination of the Democratic Party that FDR headed. The '34 campaign, as Mitchell's book tells us, frightened the rich and led movie studios and other businesses to threaten to leave California if Sinclair should be elected. Earl Warren, the future Governor of California and United States Chief Justice, then a young district attorney, announced: "This is no longer a campaign between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party in California. It is a crusade of Americans and Californians against Radicalism and Socialism." (See Mitchell, p. 354.) Later, he called EPIC "a communistic radicalism" (ibid., p. 389).

    The extant coverage of Heinlein's campaign begins and ends right there in the EPIC News. The paper suspended publication the month after listing Heinlein's name in the 59th District slot (lack of funds being cited as the reason) and did not resume until just before the primary. None of the Los Angeles dailies seems to have run a word about candidate Heinlein. If any ads or news stories were published, they probably appeared in one of the hard-to-find weekly papers in the area.

    (There is a story that Forrest Ackerman first met Heinlein by recognizing him in a Los Angeles bookstore from his picture on a 1938 campaign poster. It is tempting to speculate that the photo might have been the same one used for so long on his books. The photo on the back of Grumbles From the Grave is credited to William H. Corson, identified inside as a friend from the Los Angeles area, and the subject's youthful appearance indicates it was an early picture. On page 176 of Take Back Your Government! Heinlein says, "Use just one picture of your candidate and make it a trademark." The one on the books would certainly have been a good choice.)

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